What’s the Most Common Source of Awe?

January 24, 2023

In a study I conducted with collaborators Yang Bai and Maria Monroy (under review), we provided people with the definition of awe—“being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that transcends your current understanding of the world”—and then they wrote their own stories of awe.

The participants were from 26 countries, including adherents to all major religions, as well as denizens of more secular cultures (e.g., Holland). Our participants varied in terms of their wealth and education. They lived within democratic and authoritarian political systems. They held egalitarian and patriarchal views of gender. They ranged in their cultural values from the more collectivist (e.g., China, Mexico) to the more individualistic (e.g., the United States).

Speakers of 20 languages at UC Berkeley translated the 2,600 narratives they produced. We were surprised to learn that these rich narratives from around the world could be classified into a taxonomy of awe, the eight wonders of life, from collective rituals to sudden intellectual epiphanies.

What most commonly led people to feel awe? Nature? Spiritual practice? Listening to music? In fact, it was other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming—actions of strangers, roommates, teachers, colleagues at work, people in the news, characters on podcasts, and our neighbors and family members. Around the world, we are most likely to feel awe when moved by moral beauty: exceptional virtue, character, and ability, marked by a purity and goodness of intention and action.

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